Distance and digital learning during COVID-19 crisis: UNESCO Literacy Prizes laureates share their experiences

On 3 June 2021, UNESCO organized an online consultation with UNESCO International Literacy Prizes’ laureates from previous years to inform this year’s theme of International Literacy Day (ILD): “The right to literacy in times of COVID-19: Contributions of distance and digital learning”. The programme representatives were invited to the meeting due to the diverse nature of their literacy learning activities and wide regional distribution, relevant for informing and adding to a rich discussion on the different way literacy learning programmes have coped with distance and digital learning during COVID-19.

The meeting brought together eight laureates who shared their respective experiences with distance and digital literacy learning, investigating the various kinds of distance learning solutions that were adopted in the different countries, communities and contexts. The laureates shared the challenges they faced in their transition and implementation of literacy learning to distance learning, and what they learned from these emergency responses that could feed into their programmes in the future.

The participating laureates included: Ageing Nepal and United World Schools (United Kingdom), both laureates of the UNESCO King Sejong literacy Prizes in 2020; BASABali from Indonesia, laureate of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2019; Nigerian Prisons Service, winner of the Confucius Prize in 2018; the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, Concordia University (Canada), winner of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2017; The Citizens Foundation, a Pakistani programme, and Fundza from South Africa, both winners of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2017; We Love Reading, from Jordan, laureate of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2017.

Some insights about the transition to distance literacy learning during the pandemic

Recognizing the importance of human interaction, most of the literacy programmes used hybrid approaches to distance learning combining face-to face instruction and distance learning of different kinds supported by high, low- and no-tech solutions. Digital tools were used for literacy instruction and teacher training, as well as for creating a virtual community to support peer interactions, where connectivity was possible. Other means of distance learning, low-tech solutions such as radio, TV and distribution of print handout were also used to ensure continuity of literacy learning during the pandemic, often combined with face-to face learning in small groups, for instance.

Distance learning, however, has posed a range of challenges, including digital divide in terms of infrastructure, the cost of digital tools, and digital skills of educators and learners. The real impact on learning outcomes are still to be understood.

Many representatives mentioned the need for appropriate infrastructure to implement distance learning for both high-tech solutions but also low-tech and no-tech practices.

Global Manager of the ‘Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance’, Ms Anne Wade, said. “In terms of infrastructure, one concern with this shift to using distance learning or distance education is that governments are going to assign a lot of money towards installing equipment in schools. But the concern would be that governments also address the teacher’s professional development that goes alongside that, how to maintain and support that equipment overtime and finally how to replace that technology in the long term.”

Furthermore, a majority of the programmes worked with learners who did not have access to digital learning nor to electricity. Chief Executive of ‘United World Schools’, Mr Tim Howarth said: “Within the context in which we work, in very remote villages typically with no electricity, almost always off the grid in terms of connectivity, had to make sure the programme was accessible and relevant to the communities.”

Founder and director of the programme ‘We Love Reading’, Ms Rana Dajani, highlighted that the programme had to cope with many challenges including the cost of distance learning, the distribution of learning materials, an inadequate level of parents’ literacy skills when teaching children, and the need for content to be adapted to learners in terms of language, culture, and learners’ engagement.

Ageing Nepal stressed that older people needed to acquire basic literacy skills as a precondition to gain access to and use digital technology.

We Love Reading, United World Schools, the Citizens Foundation and Fundza highlighted the need for literacy learnings to be holistic. Issues of multilinguism, social and emotional learning, mental health, gender equality and economic disparities were highlighted as important elements to be incorporated in literacy distance learning.

Several participants also highlighted the opportunities that were created by the forced transition to distance learning. Controller of Correction of the Nigerian Prisons Service, Mr Frank Enabore put forward the case of learning in carceral environments and highlighted the positive side effects:

“What is significant with the e-learning platforms and distance learning programmes is that inmates now have a programme that outlives the period they spend in custody. Before, when we were having in-person learning programmes, if an inmate terminated his time in prison, it was not possible to keep contact with him or for him to continue the programme. Now, however, when inmates are leaving prison, they are still able to continue the programme. We are proud to say that we are still able to reach most of the convicts who left prison when we had our e-platforms in place and that they are making great progress.”

Since 1967, UNESCO International Literacy Prizes have rewarded excellence and innovation in the field of literacy. Over 500 projects and programmes undertaken by governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals around the world have been awarded these prestigious Prizes, through which UNESCO seeks to support effective literacy practices and encourages the promotion of dynamic literate societies.

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